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B1G Numbers to Ponder: Lots of MAC-tion, Protecting the Passer, and Going Deep

The Big Ten loves to schedule MAC teams during non-conference play.

Capitol One Orange Bowl - Florida State v Michigan
Michigan’s Wilton Speight averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt in 2016.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Welcome back to your weekly dose of numbers to think about as you sip away at your coffee and wish you weren’t at work.

This week, I took a look at the non-conference opponents of all 14 Big Ten teams in 2017, counting up how many schools from each of the other conferences the Big Ten faces. Not surprisingly, the Big Ten favors the MAC. The “Hustle Belt” conference pretty much covers the same geographical area as the Big Ten, making road trips for MAC students and fans to Big Ten campuses fairly easy.

Here is how the breakdown of Big Ten opponents went by conference, with the total number of matchups with that conference in parenthesis:

  1. MAC (9)
  2. Mountain West, Conference USA (5)
  3. ACC (4)
  4. PAC-12, American, Independent, Big 12, Sun Belt (3)
  5. SEC, FCS (2)

The only two SEC schools playing Big Ten teams this season are Florida and Missouri. Regardless of who is responsible, it’s worth noting that the Big Ten plays the same number of games against the SEC as it does against FCS-level programs.

Protecting the Passer

Last season, no two teams in the Big Ten gave up fewer sacks than Nebraska and Minnesota. Each team only gave up 1.2 sacks per game.

Heading into the 2017 season, both programs return four guys who either started or have a considerable amount of playing time under their belts. Conventional wisdom would tell you that both should once again excel at protecting their quarterbacks, but it’s not that simple. In 2016, both teams fielded some fairly mobile quarterbacks who were able to move around to avoid the rush and get rid of the ball often before defenders closed in. Additionally, it sounds like Nebraska will be passing more often, while Minnesota’s offense might have an entirely different look altogether in the first season of the P.J. Fleck era.

Closer to home, as good as Iowa’s offensive line is perceived to be in the running game, the Hawkeyes gave up 2.3 sacks per game in 2016 — good enough for fifth-worst in the Big Ten.

Going Deep

Sticking with quarterbacks, the top three passers in the conference in terms of yard per attempt last season all return in 2017. Penn State’s Trace McSorely, Indiana’s Richard Lagow and Michigan’s Wilton Speight averaged the most yards per attempt, with McSorely’s 9.3 yards per pass besting the other two by 1.6 yards.

Surprisingly, Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong — known more as a dual-threat who didn’t exactly chuck it downfield often — was in the top half of the conference at 7.4 yards per attempt. It will be interesting to see what happens to the average from a positional standpoint at Nebraska with more of a pure pocket passer delivering the ball.

Laundry on the field

Penalties kill, and nobody had more flags thrown on them in the Big Ten in 2016 than the Maryland Terrapins and Minnesota Golden Gophers. D.J. Durkin’s Maryland crew was flagged 88 times, giving up a total of 794 unearned yards (61.1 per game) to opposing teams. The Gophers were also flagged 88 times, giving up 743 yards in the process.

On the positive side, Northwestern was the least-penalized team in the conference. They were only flagged a total of 47 times in 13 games — a testament to Pat Fitzgerald’s disciplined approach.

Iowa finished in the top-third of the conference in terms of least-penalized teams. The Hawkeyes were flagged 65 times, giving up only 41.3 penalty yards per game.